What’s your sign?


If films throughout the years have taught us nothing it’s that police stations are the closest thing to pandemonium found on this earth.
They are circuses filled with dolled-up hookers, frothing junkies and wild-eyed psychopaths chained to desks like animals while muttering inanities filled with apocalyptic visions. They are simply abuzz with activity, zany characters, hardened criminals and quick-witted lawmen.
Though any time I had the opportunity to “visit” such dens of debauchery, I left unfulfilled.
Where were the nappy, grizzled homeless men with weapons tucked under their beards? Where were the fishnet-clad callgirls opening up a can of sass to the patient police officer? Surely someone was going to pick up that coffee-maker and blind a cop with scalding liquid in a daring escape attempt, right?
Seldom comes a film that I believe so accurately captures the minutiae of the profession as with “Zodiac” – not only the high-profile gloss of murder, but the countless dead-end dirt paths traveled by officers in their attempts to seek answers to their questions. Sure there are plenty of hands tied, but not criminals with the shiny shackles of polished cuffs, but rather the officers themselves, as they encounter one bureaucratic obstacle after the next.
When reviewing “Zodiac,” the new film directed by David Fincher (“Se7en,” “Fight Club”), I believe it is important to note the film’s length of more than two and a half hours. I think many a misguided teen (including the gaggle of obsessively gabbing idiots that sat next to me during a Sunday matinee at a Midway screening) may salivate upon hearing the director’s name and “serial killer” mentioned in the same sentence.
This film is not for you, chatty Cathy.
No, this film is for anyone who can appreciate the frustrations, the seemingly epic struggles of an investigation in which the chief goal remains perpetually out of reach. And, since the case has been unsolved to this day, the film’s conclusion offers no easy answers.
Still, those with the patience should be entranced at how this taunting spectre of death managed not only to quickly end many lives, but to alter others as he evaded capture to this very day.
Long story short, there is no head-in-the-box money shot or twist ending at the close of “Zodiac.” Instead, we are treated to a director who seems equally obsessed about the trail of dead and wounded (both physically and psychologically) left behind by madman.
The film begins in 1969, with a terrifying scene in which a young couple park in an empty lot in San Francisco and are methodically gunned down. The following day, a series of letter is sent to “The San Francisco Chronicle” and other papers that claim responsibility for the killings, among others, and threatening many others.
In the film’s first half, the killer taunts boozing, drugging reporter Paul Avery (played by Robert Downey Jr., putting the “chronic” in “Chronical”), leading him to the brink of insanity with his cat-and-mouse memos.
During the second half, the murderer is the obsession of Bay Area lawman, Dave Toschi (played by Mary Ruffalo), who remains mere footsteps behind.
The tiny thread holding the two pieces of film together is editorial cartoonist (and later author of the best-selling book “Zodiac”) Robert Graysmith (played by Jake Gyllenhaal). He is but a fledgling pencil pusher when the taunts begin, but realizes that nothing in his workaday life compares to the rush he feels when trying to crack the elusive codes sent in by the killer.
While Gyllenhaal is a serviceable tour guide, it is Downey who once again wows as his ascot-favoring reporter whose penchant for addictive substances only escalates the deeper he’s drawn into the case. Ruffalo is also amusing in his turn as the quick-tempered cop, and the supporting cast – including Anthony Edwads, James LeGros, Elias Koteas, Chloe Sevigny and Philip Baker Hall – all pepper the film with solid performances.
Yet for sheer achievement, director Fincher deserves all the credit. Gone are his fancy lensing styles that tethered him to his commercial roots (before helming the divisive “Aliens3”). He eschews them for flat, panning shots, creative-yet-purposeful camera placement and inventive editing that propels the story from year to year.
When the credits roll, “Zodiac” is a film born in ’70s filmmaking style (I dare you to sit through the newsroom scenes and not be reminded of “All the President’s Men”), but punctuated with flourishes by a filmmaker confident in his ability and his performers.
And even though there is ne’er a hooker, crackhead or pan-handler to be found, he still manages to make the aspects of police work electrifying.

~ by usesoapfilm on September 11, 2007.

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